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“… Because That’s What Heroes Do”: The Curious Definition of Heroism and the Politics of Power in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”…

Note: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t seen both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero films are the most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century blockbuster.

The summer season is increasingly crowded by blockbuster superhero releases. This year is actually a fairly tempered year for Marvel Studios. Only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame are on the docket from the company, with Sony handling the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home later in the summer. However, the space between the two Marvel Studios releases included films like Shazam! and Hellboy. Later in the year, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will effectively close off Twentieth-Century Fox’s superhero blockbuster slate before it is folded into the Disney machine. Indeed, even the non-brand superheroes look to have had a fairly decent year; other releases this year include Glass and Brightburn, both movies with original characters playing with genre tropes.

There are lots of discussions about why the genre has become such a dominant feature of the pop cultural landscape. Perhaps it is simply down to technology, with advances in computer-generated animation allowing for more convincing depictions of the scale and drama expected in these sorts of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy would have been very difficult to make even a decade earlier, when it would have been next-to-impossible to animate Rocket Racoon on a workable budget. However, it may also be cultural. The rise of the modern superhero blockbuster film roughly coincided with the War on Terror, a connection rendered explicit in films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Old-fashioned heroism was undoubtedly appealing at a time of political crisis.

This is interesting in the context of Endgame. In many ways, Endgame looks to be an event of biblical proportions. There is a reasonable chance that Endgame could become the most successful movie of all-time. There is a good chance that Endgame could have a one billion dollar opening weekend. Within hours of opening, the film film had already placed (highly) on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the top 250 movies of all-time. Endgame is a bona fides pop cultural phenomenon. It is a film that shakes the world underneath its feet. It is the culmination of a twenty-odd film journey, but it is also something of a conclusive statement on (at the very least) the modern iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most high-profile example of the superhero in modern cinema.

What is that statement? What is the film actually saying? To be fair, this was an issue with Avengers: Infinity War. It was very difficult to distill a singular thematic point or moral thesis from Infinity War, largely because the film was structured in such a way as to deny its central characters any agency or autonomy within the narrative. Infinity War was a breathtakingly cynical piece of corporate logistics, occasionally veering into downright nihilism. After all, the climax of the film unfolds in the way that it does simply because Stephen Strange sees that it is supposed happen that way. No choice that the characters make has any impact on what happens, because there is only ever one way that it could happen.

Endgame is interesting in how it builds on this. In particular, how Endgame chooses to define its central characters. If Endgame is to be the defining superhero story of the modern era, its definition of “heroism” is very esoteric.

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Not So Super, Hero: What Modern Superhero Blockbusters Could Learn From “Akira”…

This Saturday, as part of the annual “Anime April”, I’ll be discussing Akira on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to last week’s episode on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here. You can listen to our episode on Akira here.

Akira is a startlingly influential film.

Even if a person hasn’t seen Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece, they have undoubtedly felt its influence rippling through popular culture in various media. In music, Kanye West cites it as his “biggest creative inspiration”, to the point that his video for Stronger is almost a shot-for-shot remake. Rian Johnson has cited Akira as a major influence on his own Looper. Josh Trank and Max Landis’ Chronicle has a number of obvious similarities to Akira. Even outside of these direct references, individual elements of the film continue to have an outsized influence on American popular culture. The iconic red bike pops up in Ready Player One. Even individual shots have been mimicked and imitated, such as the fantastic “Akira bike slide” from early in the film.

Inevitably, there has been much talk of a potential Americanised remake of Akira. After all, there have been other big-budget live action adaptations of cult Japanese projects like Ghost in the Shell or Alita: Battle Angel, and so it is surprising it has taken so long. There were rumours of an adaptation by Albert Hughes that might star Morgan Freeman. (James Franco might have headlined.) More recently, Jordan Peele declined the invitation to direct the adaptation, despite his affection for the source material. The most recent rumours suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio might be producing a version directed by Taika Waititi, which would shift the action from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan. There were other significant changes made to the source story.

There are a variety of reasons why Akira has been so difficult to adapt. Most optimistically, it may simply be a case that so much of what made the original film iconic has already been filtered through to audiences in the movies indebted to it, like Looper or Chronicle; this is the challenge adapting John Carter of Mars following the success of films like Star Wars or Flash Gordon. More pragmatically, Akira is a story rooted in a very specific cultural context. It is not an American story, it is a story anchored very specifically in eighties Japan. Of course, this is not necessarily a problem; samurai films like Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo could be reworked for American audiences as cowboy films, their cultural context shifted in the journey across the Pacific. Still, it is a challenge.

However, this challenge of cultural translation suggests one of the fundamental issues with adapting Akira for American audiences. It is hard to define Akira in terms of a single genre; it is a coming of age science-fiction deconstruction of masculinity infused with a psychedelic sensibility. However, in terms of visual style and narrative flow, the movie’s closest relatives in contemporary American cinema are superhero films. Superheroes are, after all, the dominant American cinematic mode of the twenty-first-century to date. Indeed, a modern audience approaching Akira might be tempted to read it in the context of that genre. If Chronicle is to be considered “the American Akira”, it is notable that it uses the language of the superhero genre to translate the story.

However, there is something fundamentally different about the way in which Akira approaches the idea of the superhero figure as compared to mainstream superhero films, and this difference might demonstrate why an adaptation of Akira for American cinema might pose such a challenge.

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Non-Review Review: Loro

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Loro is certainly a Paolo Sorrentino film.

Loro is an interesting watch removed from its original context. It is nominally a biographical film covering the most defining Italian politician of the twenty-first century, Silvio Berlusconi. In reality, it feels like an attempt at something broader, a sweeping commentary on corruption and moral decay that just happens to exist (like so much of contemporary Italian culture, the film suggests) in the orbit of that towering figure. The film was originally released in Italy as a duology running a total of three-hours-and-one-quarter, Sorrentino combined both halves and cut forty-five minutes from the total runtime for international distribution.

It is a difficult film to parse outside of that context. It is difficult to tell if some of the gaps and hiccups in the film are down to the necessity of trimming a quarter of the runtime or simply due to the “inside baseball” nature of a film based around the national politics of a different country. This is not to suggest that Loro is impenetrable or nonsensical without any background knowledge. Indeed, Sorrentino goes out of his way to frame Loro as a universal story about concepts like sex, power, desire, and age. However, watching the film, it feels like there are gaps and lacunas in the narrative. Despite its extended runtime, Loro feels truncated.

And yet, in spite of these gaps, Loro has an incredible infectious energy that sustains it. While perhaps a little too unfocused and perhaps a little too simplistic, it is never anything less than compelling in its absurd study of power and corruption. Loro doesn’t necessarily have a lot to say, but it makes a point to say it all very well.

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Non-Review Review: All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World is an intriguing and uneven anthropological study of wealth.

Ridley Scott’s drama documenting the abduction of Paul Getty treats its subjects as members of a different species. In an introductory voice-over, the character of Paul Getty explains that the truly rich may as well come from “another planet.” They might look the same, but they are fundamentally different from ordinary people. At one point, John Paul Getty recalls an argument on how a publisher tried to change the title of his book from How to be Rich to How to Get Rich. Getty complains, “Getting rich is easy. Any fool can get rich. Being rich, that’s something else entirely.”

A Plum(mer) Role.

This idea simmers through All the Money in the World, the notion that there is something more than just a bank balance that separates the wealthy from the poor. “Money is never just money,” reflects advisor Fletcher Chase, and All the Money in the World suggests as much repeatedly. Throughout the film, journalists and paparazzi stalk the Getty family like wildlife photographers trying to snap a picture of some rare beast in its natural habitat. The Getty’s stand apart, and that sense of otherness is compounded by some measure beyond a balance in any account.

All the Money in the World is fascinating in its exploration of this idea, but it suffers from a lack of focus and clarity. All the Money in the World feels more like a series of vignettes than a single narrative story, a set of compelling sequences that never add up to a fulfilling whole. There is something intangible missing, as if the figures don’t quite add up. Then again, that flaw seems perfectly suited to the characters at the centre of the narrative.

Oil’s well that ends well.

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Jessica Jones – AKA 1,000 Cuts (Review)

AKA 1,000 Cuts continues to toy with the conventions of the superhero genre.

The revelations about Kilgrave’s past in AKA Sin Bin represented a rejection of the psychology traditionally applied to comic book villains, creating a villain who could not blame his sociopathic tendencies on a convenient childhood trauma. AKA 1,000 Cuts plays upon another standard genre convention, the idea of the superhero who doesn’t kill. In terms of superhero storytelling, the old “thou shalt not kill” rule is always a reliable source of existential angst for a suitably ambiguous hero.

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As with many of the conventions toyed with on Jessica Jones, the trope is played relatively straight on Daredevil. Again, there is a sense of Jessica Jones as something of a playful twisted response to Daredevil, often subverting or undermining many of the genre conventions that Daredevil so skilfully embodied. At this point in the first season of Daredevil, Matt Murdock was wrestling with the question of whether or not to murder Wilson Fisk. Much hand-wringing and angst resulted, playing into the show’s masculine Catholic aesthetic.

While Daredevil seemed anchored in moral absolutes, Jessica Jones opts for a much more pragmatic and relativist solution. The question posed by Jessica Jones is not whether killing Kilgrave can be justified; the show embraces that reality quite skilfully in AKA 1,000 Cuts. The question is what it takes to justify it. AKA 1,000 Cuts offers a fairly harrowing answer.

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Harsh Realm – Inga Fossa (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Inga Fossa is a noteworthy episode of Harsh Realm for a number of reasons.

In production terms, it closes out the loose three-episode introduction to the series. The Pilot, Leviathan and Inga Fossa were all written by Chris Carter and served as an introduction to the world and rules of Harsh Realm. Perhaps owing to the relative complexity of the show’s premise, Carter takes a bit of time to lay out and establish the core ideas of the show. It isn’t until the end of Inga Fossa that characters like Thomas Hobbes and Sophie have reached the status quo that will carry them through the rest of the first season.

Game on...

Game on…

However, all of this is ultimately irrelevant. Inga Fossa will always be notable for being the final episode of Harsh Realm to air on Fox. Chris Carter’s new show was infamously cancelled after only three episodes were broadcast. The six episodes that had been produced before cancellation were quietly shuffled off Fox’s 1999 schedule; they eventually aired on FX in mid-2000, to little fanfare. The cancellation was a shocking development. The ratings were spectacularly terrible, but Harsh Realm had been intended to establish Carter as the network’s idea-generating machine.

Something was very wrong.

"You can't $@!# in here, this is the war room!"

“You can’t $@!# in here, this is the war room!”

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Millennium – The Fourth Horseman (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The second season of Millennium has been consciously building towards an apocalypse.

Actually, that is not entirely true. The second season of Millennium has been building to an almost infinite number of apocalypses. The collapse of Michael Beebe’s home in Beware of the Dog, the destruction of an entire community in Monster, the dissolution of the tribe in A Single Blade of Grass, the potential loss of a child in 19:19, an author’s acceptance of his fading skills and relevance in Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, the stealing of a soul in The Pest House, the breaking of a spirit in A Room With No View. The second season is populated with apocalypses.

Everything dies...

Everything dies…

Ever since The Beginning and the End opened with Frank Black staring into space as he contemplated cosmic forces of entropy and decay, it has been clear that the second season of Millennium is about more than just the end of the world. It is about the end of worlds. Over the course of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now, Peter Watts loses his faith (and maybe his life) as Lara Means loses her sanity. Frank Black loses his father and his friends – and, ultimately, his wife. The Marburg Virus is just a blip on the radar compared to all of this.

The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now combine to form one of the most interesting and compelling finalés ever produced. The two-parter is the perfect conclusion to the second season of Millennium. Indeed, it would be the perfect conclusion to the entire series. Perhaps the biggest problem with The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now is the fact that The Innocents is lurking only a few months away.

Cracking up...

Cracking up…

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